Building a successful program

Wabasso girls’ basketball coach Neil Dolan passes 300 career wins

Coach Dolan on the sidelines of a Wabasso game.

WABASSO — Tucked away in southwest Minnesota and with a population of less than 700, Wabasso isn’t a community at first glance that seems like it would produce so much talent on the girls’ basketball side.

The high school itself has an enrollment of 131 and the community is about halfway in between Marshall and New Ulm. Over the years, the Rabbits have celebrated a program that is a regular in the Section 3A finals or close to it. They have been to the Section 3A championship four years in a row, finishing as the runner-up each time.

While its been a while since Wabasso has been to the state tournament (2004), the community follows the high school athletic programs in great numbers. The girls’ basketball program, in fact, has become a large family of past graduates and current players and those players are there because of head coach Neil Dolan.

Dolan isn’t 100 percent sure yet, but his coaching days may be numbered. The time away from his seven children, who attend nearby Tracy-Milroy-Balaton High School, makes it tough to keep up the long weeks of coaching.

Building a successful program

Coach Dolan on the sidelines of a Wabasso game.

Dolan took over the program in 1998-99. He recently earned his 300th career victory in December. While that means he’s been around a while, it also means he’s had a lot of success follow him.

“I never thought about it much, but when you do sit back and think about it and what you’ve accomplished, it felt really good,” Dolan said. “I’ve been here a long time for a number of years, I started in 98-99 but I took three years off for the birth of my triplets, so I take those wins and I look at the 16 seasons and you’re averaging close to 20 wins a year I think. I think that’s what I’m most proud of, I think in the 16 seasons I’ve been here, I’ve been under .500 one year — I was 10-13 one year. So that consistency is what I’m proud of.”

He of course had big dreams for the program when he first took over. But even he wasn’t sure he’d be around as long as he has been. He had early success and the rest is history.

“The first year, the kids jumped right into the program, I think we were 19-7 and once they jumped in both feet first, then we just took off,” Dolan said.

Dolan had a brief break following the state championship season of 2003-04. During that tournament run, Dolan’s wife Linda was expecting triplets and she had them days after the tournament.

Journal file photo. Wabasso head coach Neil Dolan (center with clipboard) speaks to his team during a timeout at a section 3A Championship game at Southwest State University in Marshall.

It was a hectic time for the Dolan family to say the least. Immediately after, Dolan decided to take a break from coaching and be with the family.

“I had tremendous support from the whole family, at that time I had four other children and two of them were seventh or eighth-graders, so we had a lot of help,” Dolan said. “The hardest part was I took those years off and we won the championship in 2004 and I wasn’t ready to do that.”

After that year, he’s had a number of teams close to the state tournament. This year’s team lost a lot of talent, but it’s a team that can’t be looked past.

“We lost three-quarters of our scoring from last year and I think if things play out, we’ll still be a Top 2-3 seed in our subsection, that’s after graduating an awful lot of kids,” Dolan said. “I think it’s a great feeling, we’re going on four consecutive subsection championships. Now we haven’t gotten to the state tournament but we’ve lost to the state champion or the state runner-up, third-place team in the state. The teams we’ve lost to, we certainly could’ve fared very well at the state if we didn’t have to go through Minneota.”

Dolan’s program has produced many college players and eight players that have scored more than 1,000 points in their career.

“I’ve been blessed with great athletes, but ones that have listened to what I have asked them to do, and that’s what I’m most proud of,” Dolan said. “The kids listen and they know what they’re going to do. They come from 8th grade and they know that it’s a different type of a program and they jump in, they don’t question.”

He’s also been surrounded by coaching talent on the bench.

“I have had a great assistant in Stan Rohlik,” Dolan said. “He has been with me for many years. A head coach is only as good as his assistant coach and Stan is one of the very best.”

A lasting       impact

While the Rabbits have had a lot of talented teams, the obvious one that comes to mind is the state championship season. That year, the Rabbits won the state championship on team that was loaded with four players that scored more than 1,000 points in their career. Those players included seniors Ashley Prokosh and Jessica VanLoy, junior Katie Schumacher and sophomore Andrea Fennern, who holds the school record in scoring. The 2006 graduated ended her career with 2,331 points.

The Rabbits defeated Underwood 59-48 in the state championship just days before his wife gave birth to triplets. It was hectic times all around as Dolan obviously didn’t know when the children would be born.

There are many tales from the members of that team. Aside from his family of seven children, Dolan has built himself an extended family of former players who keep coming back to help the current group. To Dolan, it’s a feeling that always makes him appreciate what he’s been able to do.

“I still have kids coming to practice all the time, Jessica VanLoy, whenever she’s home with us,” Dolan said. “She’s in the gym, she’s helping coach, helping teach the kids. Karlee Eichten, Chelsey Guetter, whenever they’re home, they’re always welcome to come to practice.”

Of course, the list of former players helping out or lending advice continues to grow every year. But overall, it’s a pride that the community has for its program.

“It’s a tremendous boost to the program, because all those kids have gone through it and they know it’s not easy,” Dolan said. “They know the type of coach that I am and they also think it’s family. We still talk, they ask when practice is, that’s the greatest part of what Wabasso girls’ basketball is, year in year out, the girls continue to come back.”

About to come to an end?

Dolan realizes that his time is almost up as a coach. He’s 53, so he’s young enough to come back again if he chooses. However, he’s missed a lot of games and he realizes that time is precious.

His twins, Evelyn and Moses, attend TMB. Both are accomplished athletes he realizes he doesn’t have a lot of time to be a spectator.

“It’s getting more and more difficult every year to miss so many games,” Dolan said. “I’ve got a daughter and a son who are juniors. My daughter was all-area last year and she’ll probably get her 1,000th point this year and I’ll probably miss that. My son is a very talented young man who starts on the basketball team. I probably see one-tenth of their games a year and that part of it is very difficult.

“People ask me how I do it and its because they support me,” Dolan said. “I have the support of my family, my kids, they like me coaching. They’re Tracy (TMB) kids but they wear their Rabbits’ stuff and they pull for us every game. Each year it gets more difficult to miss those monument things that they reach and that’s the part that weighs on my mind each year.”

It takes a community to build a successful program and Dolan knows that first hand.

“I have been really blessed by the type of kids that has played for me in Wabasso,” he said. “Good students, good athletes and great kids. I attribute that to the parents and their upbringing. Respectful, hardworking wonderful young ladies and that makes coaching not only easier but also very enjoyable.”

Most important, he has the support at home.

“I certainly couldn’t do what I do without tremendous support from my wife and kids,” he said. “They sacrifice immensely so I can do this. I miss 90 percent of their games and my wife Linda chases to all she can. I am the luckiest coach on the planet to have a family who supports me like they do.”